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Biden Back to Middle East – IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute

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Biden Back to Middle East - IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute

Anil Trigunayat

There is a saying that even if any power wishes to leave the Middle East it has an uncanny ability to drag them back right in. With the changing global dynamic and domestic compulsions and perhaps fatigue of being an unwanted  Global Policeman , a perception on the basis of comments made from Obama to Biden it became rather clear to the concerned that USA was on the verge of retiring from the region. This was further accentuated by their ignominious exit from Afghanistan or for that matter US ‘s inability or intent to take the action against Iran or Houthis as the Saudi and Emirati air space and strategic assets were targeted with impunity.

This also brought into question the effectiveness of its capability and determination of the Super Power to continue to play the assumed role of an arbiter and provider of security for its friends who became somewhat carefree due to very premise and promises to that effect. But then equations, interests of nations and their priorities change over time. US is obviously drawn into the Indo-Pacific and the Eurasian conflict to counter China and Russia respectively.

And when the most powerful leaders statements do not match their actions one can not fault the surrogate states to look elsewhere or develop their own capabilities to the extent possible. Hence the regional majors like Saudi Arabia, UAE , Iran and even Israel are indulging in ‘Look East’ policy who happen to be their largest hydrocarbons markets and more value neutral partners.

Middle East is also quite peculiar due to its strategic location, critical maritime and trading choke points and the surfeit of oil and gas and consequently petro dollars in the form of sovereign wealth funds in trillions whose appetite in the western world is unending . Hence geo political and geo economic competition among the super powers becomes a given .

Any vacuum there will indeed be filled by others like China and Russia if the US vacates that space and that has become a worry for Biden as its strategic rivals in Beijing and Moscow are waiting for an opportunity. Whether they will be able to fit into the US shoes in the near term remains to be seen and is debatable .

But the threat is indeed palpable. Moreover, the Middle East also has another peculiarity in the form of geo-religious contestation that has been turning into an existential problem be it between Saudi or Iran or Iran and Israel with their partners and international backers and state and non-state actors. No one is looking for solutions but either the status quo or confrontation.

Obama tried to bring Iran back into the fold with the JCPOA ( Nuclear deal). Trump reneged on it pushing Iran, even more, closer to effective nuclearisation. Biden is trying to get back to the deal but Iranians are wary of being once bitten twice shy and like the Shylock want their pound of flash while continuing to build on their ‘Brahmastra’.No wonder Saudis and other Gulf countries as well as Israel are jittery and taking Suo moto action to decimate the Iranian capacity to acquire weapons fast.

Gulf countries are also keeping their tracks with Iran open to avoid any mutually destructive flare up. Iran has developed drone and missile capacity with lethal outreach and supposedly its 3H combine Hamas, Hezbollah and Houthis who might cause havoc in the event of all-out war wanted or otherwise. This remains a major concern for countries like India which have strategic stakes in the security and stability of the region.

It is in this back drop and the crippling impact of the pandemic and more of the Russia and Ukraine war leading to energy, food and financial crisis that President Biden chose to turn around on his disdain for the Saudis whom he wanted to pay for the murder of Khashoggi the US/Saudi journalist killed in Saudi Consulate in Turkey.

But Saudi Arabia is a power and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the most powerful leader at the present time, apart from the allegations or complicity, is working hard to make the Kingdom a modern country while retaining the religious leadership of the Muslim world and the ruler being the custodian of two holy mosques. The fact that even Mahabharata and Ramayana two Hindu Epics are being taught in schools was unthinkable until some time ago.

Recently crowned leader of UAE Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed has been working in that direction through reforms and tolerance and respect of all religions.   Its World Tolerance Summits and the Ministries to that effect are novel and welcome experiments . Abraham Accords have brought Israel close to the Arab world. Biden also has been urging a full normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel where a major irritant is the Palestine issue. Even though Biden visited the occupied West Bank and met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas under the shadow of the killing by the Israeli police of an Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh a US citizen of Palestinian origin.

Even as some aid and assistance was committed the revival of the Middle East Peace Process is not even on the horizon. President Biden expressed appreciation for the GCC countries’ pledge to provide $100 million for the East Jerusalem Hospital Network, which provides life-saving healthcare to Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Part fulfilment of opening of an Office for Palestine Affairs at the US Consulate in Jerusalem might assuage the Palestinians a bit but not much can be expected as resolving the crisis was not the Biden mission this time whose complexity he himself admitted.

As such Israel is facing its 5th election in recent times as Yair Lapid is trying to hold on in the interim. Meanwhile, Saudis have gotten closer to China their largest oil consumer and even a defence partner and even made a Rial-Yuan arrangement. UAE likewise has an excellent relationship with Beijing. So do Iran, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and others. The bus may not be able to make a U Turn from the Belt and Road entanglement (BRI). And as the US policy has pushed Russia -China more closer jointly they will try to address the concerns and caveats of the Middle East as well as the reset begins.

Another major agenda item was increased energy supplies and addressing food security. While the OPEC+ that includes Russia has agreed to enhance production from July and August the Saudis and other oil producers are not bending backwards as they have their economic challenges too. This was clarified by Saudi Minister Faisal bin Farhan ‘We listen to our partners and friends from all over the world especially consumer countries. But at the end of the day the organization follows the market situation and will supply energy as needed.’ Russians have also been in concert with the GCC partners on this issue.

However the Joint Statement of the Biden-Gulf +++ Summit does refer to the discussions in an anodyne manner ‘The leaders recognized ongoing efforts of OPEC+ towards stabilizing the global oil market in the interests of consumers, producers, and supporting economic growth. They welcomed the recent announcement by OPEC+ members to increase supply over the course of July and August, and commended the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s leading role in achieving consensus between the members of OPEC+.” European countries are also very keen to let the Iranian oil flow by pushing for early resumption

Similarly, food security and supplies were addressed “United States welcomed the decision by the Arab Coordination Group (ACG), which includes ten Arab and national specialized financial developmental institutions, to provide a minimum of $10 billion USD in response to food security challenges regionally and internationally, in line with the objectives of the U.S.-led Roadmap for Global Food Security — Call to Action. 

The leaders also welcomed the United States’ announcement of $1 billion in new acute humanitarian and near to long term food security assistance for the Middle East and North Africa region. This was also one of the key agenda during the I2 U2 (India, Israel, UAE and USA) virtual Summit when a joint venture on creating food corridors and resilient supply chains were mooted with UAE announcing a $2 bn investment in India which is a reliable food and cereals supplier to the Middle East.

President Biden did try to assure the regional partners including GCC, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt as well as Israel of their continued security cover how much it would have convinced them remains to be seen as the so-called security architecture for the Middle East is still on the drawing board. The leaders affirmed their joint commitment to preserve regional security and stability, support diplomacy with the aim of regional de-escalation, deepen their region-wide defense, security, and intelligence cooperation, and ensure the freedom and security of waterways.

Task Forces 153 and 59 are likely to enhance defence and security coordination as the Statement noted ‘the leaders discussed various ways to enhance their joint cooperation aimed at strengthening deterrence and the defense capabilities of GCC member states, as well as enhanced integration and interoperability in their air and missile defenses and maritime security capabilities, and early warning systems and information sharing.” Iranian threats were mentioned and Tehran in its typical style refused to be cowed down accusing the USA of stoking tensions as it created its Indian Ocean Drone Division.

Although President Biden may have ticked the available boxes during the visit he was unable to pick any fruits as none were low hanging.

This article was first published in The India Observer as Diplomacy Unwound Biden Back to Middle East on 24 July 2022.

Read more by Anil Trigunayat here:

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Two years after Galwan Clash| 19 June 2022

Calming West Asia| 16 June 2022

Quadization of the Indo-Pacific| 5 June 2022

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Pakistan’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and UAE| 12 May 2022

The Government and Media building Brand BIMSTEC| 9 May 2022

Rapprochement in West Asia needs to move forward| 5 May 2022

West’s foreign policy exposes hypocrisy, double-standards| 19 April 2022

India-USA: 2+2 Could be 5| 17 April 2022

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Youtube- Watch Anil Trigunayat at IMPRI #WebPolicyTalk as part of the panel discussion on the topic Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: Implications for India and Emerging Geopolitics

About the Author

Anil Trigunayatformer Indian Ambassador to Jordan, Libya, and Malta; Distinguished Fellow and Head of the West Asia Experts Group at the Vivekananda International Foundation

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